Something Broke: An Israeli Soldier’s Journey to Become a Combatant for Peace
“In this country I really love, there’s something seriously wounded that has to be healed. I have to be involved in some way.”
It was the Oslo years—“peace time”—and Moran Zamir wondered if he would even need to join the Israeli army (IDF).
“There was lots of hope,” he told me, as we sat outside a café near Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. “We thought that tomorrow the peace will come.”
Moran grew up during this time, coming of age on a kibbutz near the “67 border,” the only internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank. But dreams of peace tend to fade here as quickly as they appear. When the Second Intifada began in late 2000, however, those dreams exploded.
The sharp increase in Palestinian suicide bombing led to a sharper increase in Israeli fears. Daily newspaper headlines reported buses, night clubs, restaurants, and hotels ripped apart from bombs strapped to chests and hidden in bags. No one felt safe.
“I saw the Palestinian as a threat,” Moran said heavily. “Each one. Each and every one of them. The conflict had become really relevant to daily life … Suddenly, it’s close, not only far away.”
Just entering his formative teenage years, Moran’s fears fostered paranoia: “If I see an Arab guy go on the bus, I sit on the other side. Or if he put his bag under the bus, I wait until he goes on the bus, and then I check his bag. I did this. If we see Palestinians, we assume they probably want to kill us. You feel everywhere you go you have to look behind you.”
In this culture of fear, young Israelis like Moran saw the IDF as “heroes” and “role models,” believing that “the only thing in the world that will keep you alive is the IDF. We want to be like them, to fight terror.” In such a militaristic society, the IDF was beyond reproach.
“At some point, something broke in this picture,” Moran confessed. Before joining the army, he visited Hebron. The disturbing reality of settler violence toward and displacement of Palestinians in and around the Old City produced questions: “What’s happening? What did those [Palestinians] feel when [the army] forced them to leave their homes, close their shops, because there was some Jewish settler that moved there?” Suddenly, the reality he thought he knew became more complicated.
But Moran held to the narrative of his upbringing: “We are the right side,” he kept telling himself, “the just side. We protect ourselves. That’s what we do. Sometimes we do not such nice things, but we have to do it.” When he joined the army, he believed he was right to do so, assuring himself the IDF needed moral, kind people like himself to serve.
In 2008, the year after Hamas took control of Gaza, Moran’s unit began operations inside the Gaza Strip, and he found himself in planning meetings for these operations. Those in charge expressed one goal:
To destroy the daily life of the population, to create a feeling of fear, of threat. The main goal of all we were doing is to create this feeling inside the civilian population: the feeling of risk, that any day the army can come and destroy their house and field. I start to feel that something here is not really right. We were using really massive force, with tanks, field combatants, and air force. They all go like a big giant, come in, find some village, arrest some people, destroy a house and field.
Moran said the IDF demolished Gazans orange fields:
It wasn’t even part of what we’re doing, it was just on the way. It was terrible to see what we could do with a big tractor. Some people, that’s how they make their living, how they bring food to their table. But what happens tomorrow with these people? Maybe it’s the only thing they have, these oranges.
He then told me a story:
One day we were going to someone’s house in a small village in the south of Gaza. The house was empty ‘cause all the people had escaped from the village. But there was one guy who stayed in the house. He was handicapped, without one leg. And he laid down on the sofa in the living room, since he couldn’t escape. We were very surprised to see him in the living room because we were sure everyone had escaped. He just lay there and looked at us with no fear in his eyes. He spoke in really good Hebrew. He said, “I used to live seven years inside Israel. I worked there in construction. I married an Israeli Arab woman, we had three children. Then one day, after seven years, they found out I was from Gaza, and so they sent me back to Gaza. In one day. The family stayed in Israel. Then I arrived here without anything—no job, no family. One year later, a drone bombed our yard one day and cut my leg off. And now you come and you take all that we have, all the oranges, the lemons. And I want to ask you a question: What do you want me to do? Where should I go?” This question stayed with me. The people around me were saying, “Oh it’s your fault. You chose Hamas.” And I thought, it has nothing to do with him. The question is not about Hamas, or Fatah. It’s about something much deeper. It was one question, one story, that started to represent something larger.
Often, the IDF swept into Gaza, arresting all the men in sight that appeared to be around sixteen, blindfolding, handcuffing, and carrying them to the army base just outside the border. After an Israeli intelligence agent investigated them, Moran explained, nearly all would be released. One particular day, Moran and two soldiers under his command were assigned to watch over the bound Palestinians until the intelligence agent arrived for questioning.
We waited there in like a big yard with few trees. Not much shade. Really hot day. June in Gaza is not nice. There were three Palestinian guys we have to watch. One of them was really old, maybe sixty or seventy. You could see he was not healthy. So we waited there—one hour passed by, two hours, three hours. No one came. No one called. The soldiers with me started to get bored, so they started hitting the Palestinian guys. I was arguing with them about this. It was not a nice feeling. But as I told you, they had a lot of anger inside them, and they had this opportunity, and these people had their hands tied, eyes covered—they’re the easiest target you can find. But anyway, in the end they stopped. This waiting went on for hour and hour and hour, without them eating anything. We gave them water, but no food. And after a few hours, this old guy, he tried to say something, but I didn’t understand Arabic at the time. He kept motioning to his body and I finally realized that he needed to take a shit. He’d waited all these hours. And so I took him with me, like you take a dog, because his hands and eyes are tied, and I held him and took him around looking for a toilet. But we couldn’t find one. He was really dirty and when I asked people, no one wanted to let him use the toilet. But when I’d stop in the middle of the base to ask people, he was sure we’d arrived at a toilet, so he’d start to take off his pants. So I’d take his pants back up. It was always this. In the end, we find a toilet. But the whole time I had this feeling: What if my grandfather was like that, like an animal, like a dog? I couldn’t stand it. We went back and ended up waiting from 6am to about 6pm. The guy from the intelligence agency called me and asked to talk to those people. He talked with them maybe two minutes in Arabic, and then told me, “Ah, okay, you can send them back.” They waited twelve hours for two minutes, over the phone.
These experiences produced feelings in Moran that grew “stronger and stronger.” He began to feel that even if Israel needed to fight back, to protect its citizens from rockets in the south, “the way we are doing it does not feel right.” Israel’s actions were only perpetuating the cycle. “Maybe we avoid something now,” he told me, “but in the end, we just create more anger, more violence. The people we encounter probably hate us, probably want to kill us. And I can understand why. And maybe a few of them are going to try to do it. Maybe the children when they grow up. Maybe in the moment we help, but in the long picture, we just cause more damage.”
When Moran’s army service ended in 2009, he could not shake this feeling. Confused, he traveled abroad to Nepal and India, unknowingly trying to escape. After returning to Israel, he noticed his discomfort with the annual Israeli Memorial Day: “It’s like the holy day of the relationship between the Israeli people and the IDF.” The day was set aside for the remembrance of those who died in the Holocaust and fighting for Israel. But Moran soon knew he could no longer participate as he once did. “I am very sad on Memorial Day, of course. I know people who died in the army. But this day isn’t really for them; it’s for telling young people that the army is so holy, so great. And I can’t take part in this.”
One Memorial Day, a few years after leaving the army, he heard of a “joint Memorial Day” organized by Combatants for Peace, remembering both the Israeli and Palestinian dead. Moran had lost hope that the politicians would fix the problem, and he wanted to help: “In this country I really love, there’s something seriously wounded that has to be healed. I can’t stand outside any longer. I have to be involved in some way.” So he decided to attend, and he heard from parents on both sides who lost their children, who perhaps were the most justified in pursuing revenge, but who instead worked together to promote peace. Moran left inspired. “The way is not to deny the pain,” he learned, “but to go through the pain and meet inside it—because we all share this pain.”
Moran began to meet with Palestinians and hear their stories. As he did, he saw that “all of us, in some way, suffered from this conflict.” Everyone had their story of pain, fear, and loss.
Ending the occupation isn’t something that’s just needed for Palestinians. It’s needed for us [Israelis], because it’s killing us. The chances for peace are much less now than they were twenty years ago, but I don’t think we have another choice, if [we] want to live here. The only way to go out from the cycle is by meeting each other. The root of violence is ignorance. It’s when people are not aware of who the other people are or who they are themselves, when you build your identity by hating the other person or being afraid. We must be able to release this ignorance, this fear and tell ourselves that yes, there might be people that are different than me, but they are not threats. They can be different, live a different way of life, they can practice a different religion, but I can also live my life and feel good about who I am without ignoring their existence. The way to do this healing process, I think, is to go through your personal story. If we can do this work first with ourselves, it will be very good for the world.
As we ended our conversation, I thanked him, reaching in my wallet to pay for our drinks. He rose from the table, smiled, and said, “Just remember, behind every human being is a story.”